GUEST COMMENTARY: The Vatican's strong defense of the Jews

(RNS) The head of a schismatic Roman Catholic sect known as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) recently labeled Jews “enemies of the Church.”

The comments from Bishop Bernard Fellay could have triggered a public clash between Catholics and Jews, as in 2009 when then-SSPX Bishop Richard Williamson denied that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust.

But rather than spark a crisis, Fellay has instead motivated Catholic Church officials to directly repudiate him and his teaching with strongly worded pledges of friendship with Jews.

“It is absolutely unacceptable, impossible, to define the Jews as enemies of the Church," said the Vatican's top spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. "Anti-Semitism in all its forms is a non-Christian act and the Catholic Church must fight this phenomenon with all her strength.”

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Vatican's Commission on Religious Relations with Jews, lambasted Fellay: “The Jews are our older brothers,” he declared. “We are inseparably linked with the Jews.”

Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore, chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, wrote to some involved in Catholic-Jewish dialogue: “I wish to assure you as both colleagues and friends that the Holy See and the USCCB find the statements of Bishop Fellay both false and deeply regrettable. ... The Catholic Church deeply values the friendship of the Jewish people and looks forward to the day when bias against them is eliminated everywhere.”

Such statements reflect decades of Jewish-Catholic rapprochement, which the SSPX rejects. It began in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council issued a groundbreaking declaration, Nostra Aetate, in 1965. That document reversed 1,800 years of Christian teaching that Jews were collectively cursed by God to wandering and suffering because of the crucifixion of Jesus, condemned anti-Semitism and affirmed that Jews remain “beloved of God.”

During Vatican II’s deliberations, French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre had strongly opposed Nostra Aetate. Although defeated by an overwhelming vote of the world’s Catholic bishops, Lefebvre later established the SSPX in protest of many Vatican II documents, and one of the group's defining traits is its rejection of Vatican II's reforms.

In 1988, Lefebvre disobeyed Pope John Paul and ordained four SSPX bishops, including Fellay and Williamson, because he wanted his movement to survive his death. This resulted in their automatic excommunication. Hoping to woo the SSPX back into the fold, Pope Benedict XVI lifted their excommunications in 2009 so that conversations between the Vatican and the SSPX could begin.

Fellay summarized those ongoing talks in an address posted on YouTube in December. He declared that Jews and other enemies "from outside the Church" were "the most opposed that the Society would be recognized as Catholic." This shows, he argued, "that Vatican II is their thing. Not the church's. They see, the enemies of the church see their benefit in the Council. Very interesting.”

Hostility to Jews seems inextricably woven into the SSPX's opposition to Vatican II. An analysis conducted last year by the Anti-Defamation League found various SSPX websites around the world that were riddled with anti-Semitic themes from the past.

The forcefulness of the church's reactions to Fellay's comments indicates that Nostra Aetate, the sapling planted nearly 50 years ago, has put down sufficient roots to resist storm winds of lingering anti-Semitism. Indeed, Cardinal Koch said that "if a group does not accept the Council, it should ask itself whether it is Catholic."

However, Fellay’s rhetoric also has deep-seated theological aspects. And efforts to reverse or rein in Nostra Aetate are not restricted to external schismatic groups; they arise occasionally from within the Catholic community.

Koch recently called for "the Catholic Church to conduct a deeper theological reflection ... to throw light theologically on the new relationship with Judaism which has developed after Nostra Aetate." This new relationship also poses unprecedented questions for the Jewish community.

In 2000, in an iconic moment for the new relationship, Pope John Paul II prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, according to a Jewish custom. He inserted into the Wall a signed prayer formally committing the Catholic Church to “genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, that's a major task for both Jews and Catholics who seek to follow John Paul's call to forge "genuine brotherhood."

(Philip A. Cunningham is professor of theology and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg is director of Interfaith Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League.)

eric greenberg

Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg is director of Interfaith Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League. RNS photo courtesy Anti-Defamation League.

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

philip cunningham

Philip A. Cunningham is professor of theology and director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. RNS photo courtesy Philip A. Cunningham.

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.


  1. It is false and malicious to state that SSPX is a schismatic Roman Catholic sect. Please check your facts before publishing your report. Thank you.

  2. From top to bottom this pathetic excuse for a piece of informative journalism is riddled with (wilful?) inaccuracies and betrays a merely superficial understanding both of recent Church history and of the politics of the Vatican.

    The Fraternity of St Pius X is not ‘a sect’ of the Catholic Church – its Founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, had it erected as a body to hold and teach authentic Catholic Doctrine. Until recently, it has unarguably done just that.

    Bishop Richard Williamson did not say six million Jews had not died during the period generally referred to as ‘The Holocaust’. He said he did not believe that six million Jews had been gassed and, as all know and recognise, the Nazis did their work in many ways that did not include gassing. Shooting, working and starving people – Jews included – to death is no less terrible than gassing them. Bishop Williamson confined his comments to murder by gassing, in gas chambers. Perhaps a little objective analysis of the Bishop’s precise words would be welcome, unless we simply wish to pillory him for what he did NOT say….

    Bishop Fellay – currently Superior General of the SSPX is a Vatican lickspittle who not at all cordially detests Bishop Williamson who is his senior in the Episcopate and who intellectual probity and prowess leave Bishop Fellay eating dust. It is for this reason and also because Bishop Williamson will not consent to the perfidious sell-out of the SSPX Founder’s principles in exchange for a mess of unorthodox or plainly heretical Vatican potage. Bishop Fellay most ardently desires uniting himself to Benedict XVI and his coteries of neo-Protestants who serve him. Anyone who really thinks that Bishop Fellay cast Bishop Williamson out of the SSPX because of the brou-ha-ha over an inaccurately reported comment on a piece of secular history concerning the Jews is either naive or a knave. Now, Bishop Fellay is not naive, I am sure. The jury is still out on his being a knave, though. Bishop Fellay wants a metre or two of scarlet silk and a nice scarlet Biretta and skull-cap. The price is even now clear – the betrayal of Catholic Doctrine, most of which does not directly concern the Jews.

    Your writers (of this piece, at least) are either woefully ignorant of the reality of Church affairs or they have an agenda that they seek to promote even if that be at the cost of the Truth. If your readers really want to know the true facts then I am willing to counter the falsehoods and inaccuracies of this article, line by line. I know nothing will come of my offer the better to enlighten you and correct your errors and I suspect this will be so truly because you have no genuine interest in the Truth – and because you care less for the Truth than you would ever wish us to know.

  3. Though I mostly agree with Dr. Berry except when he said, “plainly heretical Vatican (2)”.

    The abuses were the result of free and deliberate acts of men with modernist agendas and NOT in any way related to the Teachings of a duly and solemnly ratified Council of V2.

    Don’t tell us about the “ambiguous” nature of some Documents because it’s easily remediable, if the text is clear, obey it, if some texts are not clear whether they say X or Y, then follow the one in conformance with the light of Tradition. Period. The reason is simple, the Holy Bible is ambiguous too on subjects of Infusion by Grace, Mariology, Justification, Indulgences etc. but here’s the clincher, we don’t blame the Holy Bible for the abuses and the rise of Martin Luther (nowadays, the modernists), right?

    Also please don’t tell us V2 was just pastoral and non-Dogmatic Council so therefore could be rejected or make fun of, well, are you aware that there were Councils from the past that are pastoral in nature too? Do we the right to refuse them?

    By making private judgment and interpretations of what the Scripture and Tradition truly says, we are putting ourselves as the alternate magisterium.

    Obedience is the key. Nobody would have faith (Doctrines of the Church) if one doesn’t accept (obedience) it in the first place, right? Without obedience there is no faith. So the “blind obedience” charge of the SSPX is unwarranted or should we say obedience according to ones’s own interpretation of tradition?

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